This article is republished from The New Polis, Dec. 23, 2019.
Neil Jordan’s film Byzantium (2012), which tells the story of a pair of mother/daughter vampires on the run from a male-only secret society of vampires known as Brotherhood, has been widely read as a feminist approach to the literary convention of the vampire. The depiction of female vampires that are neither villainized for a predatory relationships to men, nor used as a vehicle to cast the undead monstrosity of the female vampire as a metaphor for lesbianism, alongside notions of representation regarding strong female characters and a suggestion of female sexual agency, contribute to this view of the film. Nevertheless, incongruities persist in the way the film addresses sexual politics and feminism.
This is especially true when it comes to popular criticism and reviews of the film as well as the promotional campaigns and press, but the temptation to read Byzantium as implicitly feminist can be seen as effective even in the work of certain scholars of professional film criticism. While such readings might be successfully argued, the amount of theoretical work required to contort the film into producing a net gain in terms of feminist ideology suggests that there are likely other, better, ways to read the film in order to address issues of gender, sexuality, and politics. As such, this article will consist of two parts.
First, I will explicate and critique one such, seemingly successful, argument for reading Byzantium as a feminist document. By doing this, I hope to show that reading the film as feminist—distinct form a feminist reading of the film—misses the mark on reading Byzantium and forecloses a deeper cultural critique which would otherwise be available. Second, I will next apply a gendered conception of Giorgio Agamben’s concept of homo sacer in order to understand how Byzantium presents gender in terms of sovereignty, exception, and violence, in a reading which, while laking the blatant optimism of the previous reading, should allow the film to speak more directly to the how gender enters into contemporary political and social issues.
Byzantium is situated within the larger vampire film tradition in a somewhat peculiar position. In an essay called “The Vampire, the Queer, and the Girl: Reflections on the Politics and Ethics of Immortality’s Gendering,” Kimberly Lau summarizes this tradition as being composed of two major movements or what she calls “vogues.” The first arises with the tradition of English language vampires—Lau cites Polidori’s “The Vampyre” and Byron’s “Fragment of a Novel” as well as Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” as foundational examples of this first vogue—and can be characterized by the centrality of homoeroticism within vampire narratives.
Lau correctly suggests that “this unruly and irrepressible queer desire is more than simply thematic, however; it reveals itself in its formal recursivity as well” (7). As such, the vampire’s queerness “might be understood as the vampire narrative’s surplus, the ‘excessive, “unreal” remainder that produces an ever-present jouissance’” (Lau 7). In this last quotation, Lau is citing the work of literary critic Lee Edelman to help define the vampire’s queerness.
Edelman’s work points to the death drive and it is here that Lau, again quoting Edelman, situates the thematic of immortality in the vampire narrative, “as Edelman’s description makes clear: ‘In a political field whose limit and horizon is reproductive futurism, queerness embodies this death drive, this intransigent jouissance … queerness exposes sexuality’s inevitable coloring by the drive: the insistence on repetition, its stubborn denial of teleology’” (8). And while, “an immortality premised on death may seem ironic or paradoxical, this relationship has been metaphorized throughout the history of psychoanalysis — for instance, Slavoj Žižek characterizes the Lacanian death drive as ‘precisely the ultimate Freudian name for the dimension of traditional metaphysics designated as that of immortality’” (Lau 9).
Here queerness is attached to immortality of the vampire directly, via the death drive, in that, in a homophobic/heteronormative sense, queerness is represented in the undead, standstill of immortality which is thought to stand in direct opposition to a generative, creative, reproductive-futurist oriented Eros of heterosexuality.
The second vogue Lau identifies is a development of the “twenty-first century, focalized through the girl, and heterosexualized” (5). This recent tradition includes most obviously, Twilight, as well as a number of other young adult works of fiction and television shows like Vampire Diaries.
While, the removal of the vampire’s queerness is central to the development of the second vogue—shifting the focus of the male vampire onto a romantic relationship with a human girl—the presence of the girl is likewise, for Lau, a central feature of the vogue. Lau says that “if the girl is central to the narratives of the second vampire vogue, she is perhaps even more so to their critical and cultural denunciation, often resulting in a slippage between character and audience” (11). Lau seems to be correct, in that it is the presence of the girl, both as character and as audience that renders films like Twilight so easily dismissed.
However, Lau situates the girl as fundamental to her feminist reading of Byzantium, by invoking Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari and their conception of the girl. Lau quotes Deleuze and Guattari as saying: “the girl is like the block of becoming that remains contemporaneous to each opposable term, man, woman, child, adult … It is certain that molecular politics proceeds via the girl and the child” (12). As Lau points out:
the language is nothing if not slippery … and part of its slipperiness is due to the fact that dominant understandings of the little girl, the girl, the feminine adolescent, and the woman are always already mapped onto a linear temporal progression. As [Catherine] Driscoll makes clear, however, ‘becoming for Deleuze is strictly opposed to any linear conception of time.’ That is to say: the girl resists and disrupts chrononormativity. (12)
Byzantium, then is coordinated in an unusual position according to these two traditions. While on the one hand it is highly heterosexualized and heterosexualizes the references to Polidori, Byron, and Le Fanu, it at the same time flips the gender configuration of the second vogue such that the girl herself is the vampire.
Ultimately, Lau, in part on the basis of “[Neil] Jordan’s own queer sensibility and his decision to adapt Moira Buffini’s explicitly feminist play” (13) suggests that the film’s “seemingly conservative politics—not only its heterosexualization of the vampire tradition but also its representations of female sexuality and romantic love—contribute to a feminist critique of the underlying patriarchal ideologies and investments at work in the vampire narratives of both vogues” (16). However, it seems clear that in switching the the genders of the second vogue, Byzantium doesn’t actually accomplish much more for feminism than its human-girl/male-vampire second vogue counterparts. That is, if it is feminist it is so in a highly heteronormative way that erases the vampire’s queerness and ends with mother and daughter parting ways, each with a man with whom they can enter a heteronormative relationship.
According to Lau herself, what constitutes much of the queerness of the vampire is the break with “heteronormative ideologies that reinforce what Lee Edelman calls ‘reproductive futurism’” (3). This is the state of being undead, and quoting Edelman further, Lau points out that it is a “denial of teleology” (4) — a teleology which constitutes straight life, i.e., marriage, children, home, planning for the future. Lau’s feminist reading of the film is dependent on the idea that “Clara and Eleanor … exist beyond the scope of recognizable gendered subjectivity by virtue of their vampirism—[that] they are not, and never will be, ‘proper’ (biological) reproductive subjects and thus remain forever culturally incomprehensible” (Lau 18).
Furthermore, Lau cites Juana María Rodríguez, saying “female subjectivity is often simply unintelligible when divorced from cultural logics that define sexuality as either solely reproductive … or wholly carnal, unrestrained, and dangerous” as such, Lau argues that “while Clara, like female vampires more generally, is figured through the culturally comprehensible trope of exuberant and dangerous sexuality, Eleanor remains much more enigmatic, outside the dominant cultural logics by which women are defined. Neither reproductive nor dangerously sexual, she seeks a different recognition for a different subjectivity” (18).
Given Eleanor’s appearance, i.e., the fact that she appears very girl-like and because she is obviously not highly sexualized, never takes on a physical appearance of fertility and motherhood, Lau’s reading at first seems plausible. What Lau fails to recognize, however, is the vaginal and uterine nature of the island cave where Eleanor convert’s Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) into a vampire, a process which is already commonly described using a parental metaphor.
Additionally, Eleanor’s act of saving Frank from death by turning him into a vampire can be seen as constituting an act of motherly nurturing as well as enabling her to enter into a relationship with him that “reproduces the hegemonic fantasy of eternal love” (Lau 14). Thus, while at the outset of the film it could be said that at least Eleanor exists in a state of incomprehensible subjectivity, wherein she “seeks a different recognition for a different subjectivity” through her attempt to write her own narrative, by the end of the film both Eleanor and Clara have been fully reabsorbed into the “comprehensible” female subjectivity so dictated by the patriarchal ideologies.
Perhaps, then, a more productive way to read the expression of gender in Byzantium—rather than attempting to wrest a feminist reading out of a film that ultimately reinscribes male dominance—would be to be to see Clara, and then by extension Eleanor, as a gendered expression of Giorgio Agamben’s concept of homo sacer.
In Homo Sacer, Agamben states that “the protagonist of this book is bare life, that is the life of homo sacer (sacred man), who may be killed and yet not sacrificed” (8). In opening his book, Agamben says that “the Greeks had no single term to express what we mean by the word ‘life.’ They used two terms that … are semantically and morphologically distinct: zoē, which expressed the simple fact of living common to all living beings (animals, men, or gods), and bios, which indicated the form or way of living proper to an individual or a group” (1).
Thus, by conventional wisdom bios indicates a life defined by the human’s status as a rational animal—such as “when Aristotle distinguishes the contemplative life of the philosopher (bios theōrētikos) from the life of pleasure (bios apolaustikos) and the political life (bios pilitikos) in the Nichomanshean Ethics”—whereas zoē can be seen as the foundational definition of life for the concept of bare life, in that “to speak of a zoē politikē of the citizens of Athens would have made no sense” (Homo Sacer 1).
What is important for our analysis of Byzantium and, indeed, for Agamben’s book, is that “the entry of zoē into the sphere of the polis—the politicization of bare life as such—constitutes the decisive event of modernity and signals a radical transformation of the political-philosophical categories of classical thought” which enables the understanding that “there is politics because man is the living being who, in language, separates and opposes himself to his own bare life and, at the same time maintains himself in relation to that bare life in an inclusive exclusion” (Homo Sacer 4, 8).
As such, it is through Clara’s initial banishment from the Brotherhood, and their subsequent attempts to hunt her and Eleanor down and kill them, that we can see Clara and Eleanor as representatives of bare life. We see this in the fact that “the bandit could be killed … ‘“to ban” someone is to say that anyone can harm him’ or was even considered to be already dead … ‘Whoever is banned from his city on pain of death must be considered as dead’” (Homo Sacer 104-105). Agamben then ties this conception of the ban as constituting bare life to the werewolf, as per “Germanic and Anglo-Saxon sources,” in that:
The life of the bandit, like that of the sacred man, is not a piece of animal nature without any relation to law and the city. It is, rather, a threshold of indistinction and of passage between animal and man, physis and nomos, exclusion and inclusion: the life of the bandit is the life of the loup garou, the werewolf who is precisely neither man nor beast, and who dwells paradoxically within both while belonging to neither. (Homo Sacer 105)
Importantly, it is “this threshold alone, which is neither simple natural life nor social life but rather bare life or sacred life, [that] is the always present and always operative presupposition of sovereignty” (Homo Sacer 106). Thus, when Clara steals the secret which Darvell has gifted to Ruthven, she is essentially constituting the sovereignty of the Brotherhood by becoming, herself, the embodiment of this zone of indistinction.
In fact, prior to Clara becoming a vampire, in the chronological (rather than narrative) progression of the film, we see the male vampires that make up the Brotherhood acting primarily individually in something like a Hobbesian state of nature. It is in response Clara’s vampirism, wherein we learn that she occupies something of an impossible category by virtue of Darvell’s statement that “we are a Brotherhood, there are no women amongst us,” that we first see the Brotherhood assembled as a sovereign governing body (Jordan 00:93:07). Because Clara is a woman she cannot be counted as included in the Brotherhood, but because she is a vampire she cannot be fully excluded and ejected into the “simply fera bestia and natural life” (Homo Sacer 106).
The function of situating this structure of sovereignty as belonging to a brotherhood of vampires reveals a situation wherein “all societies and all cultures today … have entered into a legitimation crisis in which law (we mean by this term the entire text of tradition in its regulative form, whether the Jewish Torah of the Islamic Shariah, Christian dogma or the profane nomos) is in force as the pure ‘Nothing of Revelation’” (Homo Sacer 51).
Indeed, what we see in the Brotherhood is less a sovereign individual who preserves “his natural right to do anything to anyone,” and more a committee (Homo Sacer 106). This is a situation that resembles what Judith Butler describes, in her essay “Indefinite Detention” wherein she analyzes the bureaucratic formulations of sovereignty in the U.S. that have allowed for the state of exception in which the detainees of Guantanamo Bay find themselves today. What Butler describes could, ultimately, also be applied to the power structure of the Brotherhood:
Petty sovereigns abound, reigning in the midst of bureaucratic army institutions mobilized by aims and tactics of power they do not inaugurate or fully control. Any yet such figures are delegated with the power to render unilateral decisions, accountable to no law and without any legitimate authority. The resurrected sovereignty is thus not the sovereignty of unified power under the conditions of legitimacy, the form of power that guarantees the representative status of political institutions. It is, rather, a lawless and prerogatory power, a “rogue” power par excellence. (Butler 56)
The Brotherhood resembles this kind of systemic sovereignty in that, for the majority of the film, no single member of the Brotherhood steps in and—in conjunction with Carl Schmitt’s famous declaration that “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”—makes a decision on the state of exception, neither in terms of Clara’s banishment nor in reaction to the state of emergency that occurs when Clara,violating the rule that says women cannot create, decides to turn Eleanor into a vampire (Schmitt 5).
In place of this kind of strong-decider sovereign there is a vague reference, on the part of Darvell, to what seems be the spectral inhabitants of the unknown source of sovereignty, which Agamben refers to as “this hidden point of intersection between the juridico-institutional and the biopolitical models of power” (6). Namely, Darvell says, when Ruthven asks for his forgiveness, that “forgiveness is a Christian value, Ruthven. My gods are older, more ruthless” (Jordan 00:78:31).
According to Agamben, “this is precisely the structure of the sovereign relation, and the nihilism in which we are living is, from this perspective, nothing other than the coming to light of this relation as such” (51). Consequently, the sovereignty of the Brotherhood closely resembles what Butler describes when she says that “in a sense, the self-annulment of law under the condition of a state of emergency revitalizes the anachronistic ‘sovereign’ as the newly invigorated subjects of managerial power” (62).
In a sense then, what Agamben and Butler are describing is a relation to Kantorowicz’s idea of the kings two bodies wherein “the transitory element that is born and dies” is absent, leaving only the one virtual body “that remains unchanged by time and is maintained as the physical yet intangible support of the kingdom” (Foucault 28). The managerial sovereignty of the Brotherhood thus constitutes a virtual sovereign in the absence of a strong decider.
It is for this reason that the form of power exerted most obviously by the Brotherhood, so closely resembles that of the police. When Clara asks the members of the Brotherhood what it is that they do, they respond by saying “we are the pointed nails of justice” (Jordan 00:93:33). Likewise, outside of flashbacks, the members of the Brotherhood are seen exclusively impersonating police detectives as they hunt down Clara and Eleanor.
In relation to the analysis done by Agamben and Butler, the police could be seen as exerting this kind of managerial sovereignty in an ongoing state of exception. In fact, as Walter Benjamin puts it in his essay “Critique of Violence”:
The assertion that the ends of police violence are always identical or even connected to those of general law is entirely untrue. Rather, the “law” of the police really marks the point at which the state, whether from impotence or because of the immanent connections within any legal system, can no longer guarantee through the legal system the empirical ends that it desires at any price to attain Therefore the police intervene “for security reasons” in countless cases where no clear legal situation exists, when they are not merely, without the slightest relation to legal ends, accompanying the citizen as a brutal encumbrance through a life regulated by ordinances, or simply supervising him. (301-302)
Thus, the Brotherhood, in the suspension of law that allows them their managerial/policing power—i.e., Clara and Eleanor’s existence as an infraction—enact the violence that is typical of vampires in a configuration that mimics the violence of the police. Specifically, police violence constitutes “a kind of spectral mixture” of the “two forms of violence,” namely, lawmaking and law-preserving violence (Benjamin 301). Clara and Eleanor are the ideal targets of such violence because of:
The ignominy of such an authority, which is felt by few simply because its ordinances suffice only seldom for the crudest acts, but are therefore allowed to rampage all the more blindly in the most vulnerable areas and against thinkers, from whom the state is not protected by law—this ignominy lies in the fact that in this authority the separation of lawmaking and law-preserving violence is suspended. (Benjamin 301)
In other words, the state (or the Brotherhood) is not protected from Clara and Eleanor because they are the homines sacri, who live in the zone of indistinction, and who’s inclusion in the Brotherhood is on the very basis of their exclusion. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood members acting as the police in a state of emergency are pursuing Clara and Eleanor in an attempt to simultaneously make and preserve their own law.
If the Brotherhood, in their policing action, are engaged in both lawmaking and law-preserving violence throughout the film, then we might understand the continual violence of Clara and Eleanor as examples of Walter Benjamin’s concept of pure violence by virtue of their inclusion in the law which is also an exclusion. In State of Exception, Giorgio Agamben points out that “the difference between pure violence and mythico-juridical violence does not lie in the violence itself, but in its relation to something external” (61).
What that something external to which violence relates, then, is “law and justice” and “Benjamin’s thesis is that while mythico-juridical violence is always a means to an end, pure violence is never simply a means—whether legitimate of illegitimate—to an end (whether just or unjust)” (State of Exception 61). In this way, we can understand “violence as ‘pure medium,’ that is, as the figure of a paradoxical ‘mediality without ends’—a means that, though remaining such, is considered independently of the ends that it pursues” (State of Exception 62). Now Agamben turns to Benjamin’s essay on language in order to suss out a clearer understanding of what is meant by Benjamin’s use of the term “pure.” He says:
In the essay on language, pure language is that which is not an instrument for the purpose of communication, but communicates itself immediately, that is, a pure and simple communicability; likewise, pure violence is that which does not stand in a relation of means toward an end, but holds itself in relation to its own mediality. And just as pure language is not another language, just as it does not have a place other than that of the natural communicative languages, but reveals itself in these by exposing them as such, so pure violence is attested to only as the exposure and deposition of the relation between violence and law. Benjamin suggests as much immediately thereafter, evoking the image of violence that, in anger, is never a means but only a manifestation. (Agamben 62)
Thus, in light of the fact that they, like the Brotherhood, are vampires, the violence of Clara and Eleanor is factually identical to that of the Brotherhood. The difference being that, as mythico-juridical violence, the violence of the Brotherhood acts as the means to the ends of both making and preserving their law, while, for the most part, the violence of Clara and Eleanor bears no relation to the law. Furthermore, by virtue of their existence as homines sacri—which casts their lives as both the inauguration of and the threat against the law—their violence, as pure violence or divine violence, can also be understood by way of a configuration whereby “if mythical violence is lawmaking, divine violence is law-destroying; if the former sets boundaries, the latter boundlessly destroys them” (Benjamin 312).
The relation between Clara and Eleanor, on the one hand, and the Brotherhood, on the other, and then the relation that their respective violences have to the law, bears a resemblance to Agamben’s attempt to explicate “the debate between Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt on the state of exception” of which Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” was one of “the exoteric dossier[s] of this debate, which took place in various forms and at differing levels of intensity between 1925 and 1956” (State of Exception 52).
Specifically, their “dispute takes place in a zone of anomie that, on the one hand, must be maintained in relation to the law at all costs and, on the other, must be just as implacably released and freed from this relation. That is to say, at issue in the anomic zone is the relation between violence and law” (State of Exception 59). As it stands, the Brotherhood can be taken as representing Schmitt’s side of the debate, while Clara and Eleanor, and their continued survival and (importantly, as we will see) independence, as representing Benjamin’s position, in that “while Schmitt attempts every time to reinscribe violence within a juridical context, Benjamin responds to this gesture by seeking every time to assure it—as pure violence—an existence outside of the law” (State of Exception 59). The end of the film, in particular, bears a specific relationship to this debate, one which, unfortunately, seems to favor Schmitt over Benjamin. Benjamin’s goal of ensuring violence an existence outside the law:
corresponds to a problem that can be formulated (and it was effectively formulated for the first time in primitive Christianity and then later in the Marxian tradition) in these terms: What becomes of the law after its messianic fulfillment? (This is the controversy that opposes Paul to the Jews of his time.) And what becomes of the law in a society without classes? (State of Exception 63)
Thus for Benjamin, “what opens a passage toward justice is not the erasure of law, but its deactivation and inactivity” (State of Exception 64).
We would have to imagine a very different ending to the film in order to see Benjamin’s deactivation or fulfillment of the law take place. As the film actually ends, Darvell and Savella finally catch up with Clara and Eleanor. Savella gives Darvell “the honor” of beheading Clara, but Darvell, at the last moment, turns the blade on Savella and saves Clara and Eleanor. While this might, on a superficial reading, seem like a happy ending to the film, based on the discussion that has been laid out here, what Darvell does is simply in line with his managerial access to sovereignty and prerogatory power, and, as per Carl Schmitt, reappropriates Clara and Eleanor out of the zone of indistinction and secures their relationship to the law.
As such, given the gendered nature of Clara and Eleanor as homines sacri, Byzantium can be read, less as a feminist document, and more as the story woman as bare life in relation to Western legal history. A story which culminates in a struggle for liberation that results, not in the opening up of a passage toward justice per Walter Benjamin, but instead in an appropriation of the potential divine violence of feminism back into a relation to the law as mythico-juridical violence. What we see is:
Instead the decisive fact … that, together with the process by which the exception everywhere becomes the rule, the realm of bare life—which is originally situated at the margins of the political order—gradually begins to coincide with the political realm, and exclusion and inclusion, outside and inside, bios and zoē, right and fact, enter into a zone of irreducible indistinction. (Homo Sacer 9)
As such, Byzantium confirms Agamben’s assessment that “if in modernity life is more and more clearly placed at the center of State politics … if in our age all citizens can be said, in a specific but extremely real sense, to appear virtually as homines sacri, this is possible only because the relation of ban has constituted the essential structure of sovereign power from the beginning” (Homo Sacer 111). Thus, we can see the effectiveness of the tactic employed by sovereign powerfor maintaining its own sovereignty, namely the virtual indistinguishability between the sovereign and homo sacer.
By virtue of this exclusion which is really an inclusion, the illusion of resistance can be easily mistaken for the real thing. Those in opposition to state power might feel as though they are on the outside in a posture of revolt, when they have really been on the inside all along. In this way, as we see in the films ending, the subsequent appropriation back into the juridical order would feel like a victory, rather than the defeat that really it is.
Jared Lacy is a recent graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s English program. His research interests include political theology, postsecularism, and Literary Studies.